Crunch time for play-off hopefuls
April 21, 2011
Veteran winger Shane Horgan has been in tremendous try-scoring form for Leinster this season © Getty Images
Ospreys 20 - 22 Munster Aironi 8 - 20 Leinster Glasgow 29 - 37 Scarlets Edinburgh 27 - 15 Dragons Ulster 27 - 16 Connacht Cardiff Blues 29 - 9 Benetton Treviso
With Munster having already sealed top spot in the Magners League, the battle for the three remaining berths in the end-of-season play-offs intensifies this weekend.
Leinster currently occupy second place and, with just two rounds of action remaining and a home game to come on the final weekend against Glasgow, Joe Schmidt's men can take a massive step towards a home draw in the play-offs with a bonus-point victory over basement boys Aironi in Viadana this weekend.
Leinster have made several changes in personnel for the trip to Italy. Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Jonathan Sexton, Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip have all been dropped but this is not a Leinster side lacking in talent. Brian O'Driscoll has been recalled to the midfield and his return sees Fergus McFadden switch to the right wing. O'Driscoll is joined in the starting line-up by fellow internationals Eoin Reddan, who will partner Ian Madigan in the half-backs, props Cian Healy and Mike Ross, and No.8 Sean O'Brien. There is also a start for Scotland international Nathan Hines in the second-row.
Aironi have also rung the changes. Giulio Rubini as been ruled out with a knee injury sustained in last weekend's defeat in Edinburgh so Horacio San Martin fills in at fullback. Elsewhere, Josh Sole returns at blindside flanker after serving a one-week ban, while there are also starts for centre Gabriel Pizarro, Tito Tebaldi, lock Joshua Furno and front-rows Fabio Staibano and Alberto De Marchi.
Leinster, of course, propelled themselves into second place in the standings with a stirring win over Ulster last weekend. That defeat in Dublin dropped the Ulstermen to third and they desperately need to bounce back with a win over another of their provincial rivals, Connacht, at Ravenhill on Friday night as they finish their regular season campaign with a potentially tricky trip to Rodney Parade.
In terms of team news, Jerry Cronin starts at tight-head for Ulster in place of the injured BJ Botha, while Darren Cave comes into midfield following Paddy Wallace's season-ending thumb problem. Johann Muller returns to the second-row. For Connacht, John Muldoon returns at No.8, Michael Swift slots back in to the second-row and Brett Wilkinson is recalled at loose-head.
Ulster have little room for error because they are just one point ahead of the Ospreys and three clear of the Cardiff Blues, who have a game in hand, against the Dragons on Friday week, on all of the sides above them.
Dai Young's decision to stick with his strongest line-up is unsurprising because Treviso impressed in defeating Glasgow at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo last weekend. The Italians, though, have made changes for their trip to the Welsh capital. Joe Maddock, Tommaso Benvenuti and Ezio Galon are recalled to the back-line, while Lorenzo Cittadini, Augusto Allori, Valerio Bernabo, Francesco Minto and Manoa Vosawai have all been drafted into the pack.
For the Ospreys and their play-off hopes, this is a massive moment in the season. With their rivals all readying themselves for eminently winnable games, they must tackle runaway league leaders Munster at Liberty Stadium.
The good news for the Ospreys is that their visitors have already secured a home draw in the play-offs so they might just arrive in Swansea without their usual level of intensity. The two-time Heineken Cup winners have, however, won their last four away games in all competitions and are looking to extend a six-game winning streak in the Magners League.
Munster are buoyed by the return of Ireland stars Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara, who will skipper the side, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace, while Felix Jones, Doug Howlett and James Coughlan have also been recalled. The inclusion of fullback Jones sees Paul Warwick move into midfield to replace Johne Murphy, who has been sidelined with an eye injury.
As for the Ospreys, winger Richard Fussell has been recalled to the back-line after being consigned to the bench for the defeat by the Dragons and his inclusion sees Nikki Walker move to the left flank and Tommy Bowe move into midfield. In the pack, Ryan Bevington and Richard Hibbard are drafted into the front-row, Ian Gough has been paired with captain Alyn Wyn Jones in the second-row, while Justin Tipuric and Jonathan Thomas return to the back-row.
The Scarlets still have a mathematical chance of making the top four as they're currently just six points adrift of the Ospreys but, in truth, their hopes were ended by last weekend's defeat at home to an under-strength Munster side. Still, the men from Llanelli will still be going all out for victory when they face struggling Glasgow at Firhill on Friday night.
Their cause has not been aided, though, by the loss of Josh Turnbull (toe) and Regan King (ankle) to injury. Aaron Shingler will fill the void left by Turnbull in the second row, while Williams comes into the midfield in place of King. There are two other changes to the side beaten by Munster last time out, with Stephen Jones returning at fly-half in place of Rhys Priestland and Ben Morgan taking over at No.8 from David Lyons.
Glasgow head coach Sean Lineen's biggest dilemma ahead of the game was whether to select the five players who have already confirmed that they will be quitting the club at the end of the season. In the end, he has opted to stick with Bernardo Stortoni, Kevin Tkachuk, Aly Muldowney, Richie Vernon and James Eddie. Elsewhere, the Warriors have been boosted by the availability of scrum-half Chris Cusiter.
The final game of the weekend, meanwhile, pits seventh against eighth as the Dragons travel to Murrayfield to take on Edinburgh. The visitors lost Will Harries to injury earlier this week so Adam Hughes will switch to fullback, with Matthew Pewtner coming into the side on the right wing. Also in the back-line, there is a second Magners League start for Wales Under-20 scrum-half Jon Evans.
Edinburgh, meanwhile, have been forced in to making four changes to the side which saw off Aironi. Flankers Roddy Grant and Fraser McKenzie, centre Ben Cairns and fullback James King have all been ruled out through injury so there are starts for Ross Rennie, Stuart McInally, Nick De Luca and Chris Paterson.
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